CLEVELAND – Pick any mountain in the Valley and think about the path it takes to reach the summit.
There isn’t a single hike that heads straight to the top. Switchbacks are killers even though some progress is being made it can really be a mental test to reach the top.
The Arizona State wrestling program is in the midst of the sport’s biggest mountain, and the Sun Devils felt those switchbacks something fierce on Friday.
“No one climbs a mountain and goes straight to the top, right,” Arizona State coach Zeke Jones said. “You have to go left, then right, and back to the left. It takes some time to get to the top.”
It became clear after the second day of the 2018 Division I Wrestling Championships at Quicken Loans Arena that the Sun Devils are ascending but there is still some work to do before reaching a summit.
Led by first-time finalist Zahid Valencia, the Sun Devils have three All-Americans and enter the final day of action tied for 10th place behind leader Penn State, which powered past Ohio State to take the lead much to the dismay to many of the 18,680 onlookers.
Valencia, who attempts to become the Sun Devils’ first individual champion since 2011 by facing Penn State’s defending champion Mark Hall, is joined by senior Jason Tsirtsis (149) and sophomore Josh Shields (149), both of whom will wrestle for seventh place on Saturday.
The Sun Devils have three All-Americans for the first time since 2011 when champions Anthony Robles, Bubba Jenkins and Levi Cooper, who finished eighth, accomplished the feat.
Valencia had to settle down a bit and wrestle his match after trailing – 4-1 to Michigan’s fifth-seeded Myles Amine – for one of the rare times this season to earn his first championship berth with a 7-5 decision.
He was forcing the action – about 12 shots to one in the first period – but sometimes Valencia gets too jumpy and gets out of position because he is always on the attack.
“When I was down 4-1, I just knew I practiced this in the wrestling room,” said Valencia, who had a 38 second pin in the quarterfinals. “My coach held me down one, two, three, to like six points down, and I had to find a way to win. I think I was pretty composed and used to the situation.”
Jones said overcoming that scenario will only further Valencia’s confidence moving forward.
“It was good for him; even he said he needed that kind of match,” Jones said. “He can check that box off, right, and he has most of them already checked, but now he can say he overcame a 4-1 deficit in the national semifinals.
“It’s another step in his development to becoming everything he wants to become.”
Tsirtsis, a former national champion, lost in the quarterfinals, but recovered to win in the blood round to earn All-American status for the third time in his career with the first two coming at Northwestern.
He beat Iowa State’s Jarrett Degen 4-3 but like two of his other matches this weekend there was a review by the opposition’s coach after the clock expired so the decision was in limbo, but eventually went his way this time.
“When you are a national champion and you don’t get there again it becomes a mental game,” Jones said. “Some can’t recover. You have to realize there are things out there still to accomplish for yourself and your team. He showed the character you’d expect from a three-time All-American.”
Tsirtisis, the 10th seed, with a 20-8 record, faces Oklahoma State eighth-seed Boo Lewallen (29-7) for seventh place.
Fourth-seeded Josh Shields overcame some long odds with a stunning comeback to earn is first All-American honors.
After giving up a reversal and four near-fall points in the third period to trail 8-4 with a minute left against Rutgers’ John Van Brill, the 15th seed, he escaped and got two takedowns to send it to overtime where he got a third takedown in sudden death for the 11-9 win.
“I kind of blanked out and my body took over,” Shields said. “It gives me a lot of confidence that I can comeback. I can build off that in the future.”
While Shields earned All-American status, he wanted so much more so it will drive him for next season.
“I am the best wrestler in this bracket, I honestly believe that,” he said. “I didn’t do what I wanted to, but I was able to come back and get the wins I needed.”
Shields, who is a two-time qualifier with a 33-4 record, gets a second shot at Duke’s Mitch Zilverberg in his match for seventh place after losing 9-6 in the second round. He lost his final match – 6-2 – on Friday to former high school teammate and drilling partner Michael Kemerer.
“When it is a match like that it’s more personal,” Shields said. “You want it so bad. He’s one of my best friends.”
The first round of consolations on the day went well for the Sun Devils as Ryan Millhof (125), Shields (157), Anthony Valencia (165) and Tanner Hall (HVY) went 4-0, but only Shields won the next match to advance to the night session.
Millhof, a junior and former All-American at Oklahoma, was limited offensively because of a tweaked ankle, Valencia is a two-time qualifier as a sophomore and Hall, a junior, should be motivated by this season after not placing a year after finishing third a year ago.
“It’s a character decision,” Jones said about the motivation derived from coming up short. “You have to decide what’s important to you and what the outcome is going to be based on your decisions moving forward.”
In other words, fight through the switchbacks. The top of the summit is up there. Somewhere.
“The future is bright, but it is not guaranteed,” Jones said. “Some guys stand on the podium and the next year they don’t. National champions don’t place the next year. It’s a mindset, a purpose, improvement and having passion and love for what you do. It’s how you process and manage it.”
– Jason P. Skoda is a senior writer for MyNewsMesa.com. Send Mesa-based story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.